The Friday Interview: Itzhaki doesn't rule out return to Betar

Belgium soccer more physical, serious than Israeli technical style of play, former Jerusalem star admits.

barak Itzhaki 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
barak Itzhaki 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
In the summer of 2003, Meir Fanigel, then the owner of Betar Jerusalem, was certain he had made a massive mistake. On the advice of a friend, Fanigel signed Barak Itzhaki, a player he had never seen with is eyes, for $50,000 from bankrupt third division club Hapoel Ashkelon. When Fanigel did finally see Itzhaki play, he was shocked. He would later admit that the first thought that went through his mind when he saw the small, skinny, Yemenite kid in action was that he had just wasted $50,000. Nothing could be further than the truth. The 23-year-old Itzhaki was one of the main contributors to Betar's championship-winning campaign last season and was sold to Belgian club KRC Genk for a reported 1 million Euro in January. The Israel international quickly became a fixture in Genk's starting lineup, scoring three goals in 13 league appearances, but nevertheless refuses to rule out a shock return to Betar this summer. "I have a contract at Genk and I'm happy there but you never know. I understood that in soccer anything can happen," Itzhaki tells The Jerusalem Post while on holiday in Israel. "Everybody knows how much I love Betar and of my strong connection with the fans and the players there, so I can't say there's no way I won't return to the club at which I grew up." Itzhaki is one of five Israelis now playing in the Belgian first division. Salim Toama (Standard Liege), Gili Vermot (K.A.A. Gent) and Omer Golan (Sporting Lokeren) ensure that there's plenty of Hebrew being spoken after soccer matches in Belgium, but much more important for Itzhaki was the presence of Elyaniv Barda at Genk. Barda, who joined the side last summer, helped his friend settle in at the club and the two teamed-up in most of Genk's matches since Itzhaki's arrival. "Obviously, it helps a lot that Barda is already at the club and that there are also other Israeli's in Belgium," Itzhaki says. "Barda helped me with everything when I first arrived and I see Toama quite a bit and also occasionally meet with Golan and Vermot. "There's a lot of talk in Belgium about the Israeli imports, especially about our team as it has two Israeli players." Barda scored 16 goals for Genk this season, second most in the league. "Barda is considered to be one of the best forwards in Belgium. He has achieved his success through hard work and deserves to be second in the top scorers list," Itzhaki says. Itzhaki may only have only left Jerusalem six months ago, but he already has no problem pointing out the huge gap between soccer in Israel and Belgium. "As far as preparations and conditions are concerned Belgium and Israel are a world apart," he admits. "There's also a huge difference in the amount of fans attending the matches. The soccer in Belgium is much more physical, but in Israel the play is more technical. They didn't invent the game, but they treat it far more seriously than it's treated in Israel." Genk finished the league in the disappointing 10th position, but Itzhaki is confident that next season will be far better. "We didn't have a very good season, but things can change from year to year," he says. "Last season, for example, the team was contending for the championship until the very end. The coach is staying next season and the club is aiming to be a top side once again. From what I understand the club is planning to spend a lot of money and bring in quality players, hoping to qualify for Europe and perhaps to do even better." Even though Itzhaki is still uncertain about where he will be starting next season, the forward wants nothing more than to play in one of Europe's top leagues. "Obviously, I aspire to reach the highest levels, but first of all I need to work hard and prove myself at Genk," he says. "I will work very hard in the summer and get ready for the league. I hope that eventually I will reach the very top of European soccer."